This could be quite long, so this post is hidden behind an LJ cut. It's also helpful to read the responses to this entry, particularly Ryan's two posts. He nails the D&D core story dead on in his first one, and follows up with an analysis of Eberron that I agree with.
What is a Core Story?
A core story is the stereotypical game experience contained within an RPG. If you read my previous post and its comments, you saw Ryan's illustration of D&D's core story. A core story is important for a number of reasons:
* It provides a common, connecting element across your population of users. If I play D&D in Boston, I can move across the country to Seattle, hop into a game, and understand most of what's going on. Either the game follows the basic core story, or if it doesn't I can easily understand it in contrast to the core story. There's a good chance that, unless a new group has a really strange campaign they'll run a game I identify and enjoy. Note the power of a core story - I'm willing to bet that the phrase "a really strange D&D campaign" conjures up a much more vivid image for most of my readers than "a really strange toaster." You know what to expect from the typical D&D game.
* It creates a context for a designer's work. One of the key hurdles in RPG design lies in trying to figure out what your audience does with the final product. TSR died because it lost touch with its consumers. If I know the basic progression of a D&D session, I have a much easier time finding spaces in the system where I can add new options (feats), refine systems to improve their handling time (THACO vs. base attack bonus), and introduce new measures and sub-systems that improve the quality of play (CRs, gp value of treasure by level).
* It creates a road map for DMs. I think that the DMs' role in keeping D&D healthy is oft overlooked. If DMs don't enjoy running the game, there's no one to supply a play experience. The easier it is for DMs to create an adventure, the healthier an RPG. A core story gives a DM a basic blueprint for his own adventures.
* It provides focus in rules and story design. I think that while RPG mechanics have improved over the years, story design hasn't budged an inch (with some notable exceptions). I'll get into this topic in more depth with Eberron, but I will say that many of the processes applied to RPG mechanics have parallels in story design.
Without a core story, a game flounders. If you look at the history of RPGs, the staggering majority of successful games embrace a core story, either by design or by accident. There are two exceptions I can think of. GURPS lacks a core story, but it's designed to allow the end user to replicate the core stories taken from other games. Shadowrun had a murky core story in its 1st edition, so its users simply hijacked D&D's core story, modified it a bit to fit the SR background, and ran with it. (Pun intended.)
Core Stories and D&D
Ryan defined the D&D core story as:
"A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again."
This is dead on. There are a number of common variations, mostly dealing with how a DM unites each session into an arc of stories, but that's D&D in a nutshell. Ryan's assessment of both Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms is also spot on.
If you look at the Realms in terms of the core story, the true genius behind it becomes apparent. In the misty days of the late 70s/early 80s, Ed Greenwood developed his game world in response to the activity in his D&D games. Adventuring companies, the ruins of Undermountain, the sprawling streets of Waterdeep, the multitude of possibilities for adventure - I believe all of these have the finger prints of D&D's core story inflicting itself on Ed's creation. In many ways, I see FR as the iconic example of the typical DM's home campaign - a fantasy setting influenced by post-Tolkien fantasy, pounded into its final form by the demands of the D&D game (How do adventurers fit into society? Adventuring companies! Where do all these treasures come from? Undermountain! Myth Drannor! The Haunted Halls of Evening Star!) Add in Ed's rare combination of a vivid imagination, considerable writing talents, and boundless productivity, and you have the Forgotten Realms.
As Ryan mentioned, Greyhawk is the setting of choice for DIY DMs who don't want to draw a world map, or who need the basic tableau set up for their own works. Greyhawk has many similar features to the Realms - fallen civilizations with lots of ruins and forgotten treasures, a teeming underdark, points of civilization contrasted with wild, deadly wilderness, and so forth. Greyhawk merely lacks the Realms' detail. It waits for the DM to step in and stamp the core story upon it.
Which brings us to Eberron. What is Eberron's core story? From my current vantage point, I can't really say it has one. Even the Eberron text itself is never really clear about what the story is, and I think this problem extended to the marketing campaign waged to launch the setting. Aside from the scattered story elements that make Eberron unique, there is no single thread or vision that ties it together. The core story of Eberron seems to be D&D's core story, but that's almost by default. The ECS talks about Eberron in terms of other media - film and print - but it never really addresses the core story issue. Aside from Eberron's setting elements - warforged, undead worshipping elves, air ships - there is no fundamental shift between Eberron and the existing properties. The presence of action points almost makes Eberron feel like it's a different game trying to function within D&D. The message in Eberron seems to be "This isn't your father's D&D!" but in practice, it's the same thing.
I think it's possible to use settings to introduce new core stories that exist besides D&D's core story. Dark Sun is a good example of this (though more on it later, when I talk about metaplot). I think, were I in charge of Eberron, I would hijack the Star Wars RPG's core story, filter it through Shadowrun, and come up with:
"The heroes are independent operatives who accept comissions from powerful merchant families to infiltrate exotic locations, accomplish a goal to defeat a rival or evil organization, and flee to safety as the location either blows up, collapses, or falls into a volcanic rift."
Complete with a tip of the hat to rob_donoghue. I think this core story plays to Eberron's strengths - it has a number of competeing, though not necessarily "evil" factions, and the modes of travel within it make hopping around to distant locales relatively easy. It would be, in essence, Star Wars space-fantasy without the space.
Metaplot and Core Story
We cannot talk about metaplot and D&D without talking about Dark Sun, perhaps the best example of a metaplot gone wrong. Dark Sun started out with a brilliant core story that wrapped all the exotic elements of the setting into one, easy to understand idea:
"The heroes are the oppressed people of Athas who rise against the forces that would enslave them, battle against the minions of the wizard kings, and push back the yolk of tyranny."
The problem with Dark Sun is that the designers decided to solve the core story for the players. In first series of Dark Sun novels, the protagonists followed the core story to its logical conclusion. They defeated and overthrow a wizard king and established a free state on Athas. The heroes weren't left with much to do - the novels had trampled the core story.
A good metaplot, on the other hand, strengthens and enforces the core story. Look at the Forgotten Realms - RA Salvatore's Drizzt character has become an icon of gaming, and in doing so he created an entire new vista for the core story in Menzobaranzzen and other locales of the underdark. What was once a big dungeon became an exotic region where you could set and run entire campaigns. Despite the core changes wrought to Faerun, the setting as a whole continued to offer the core story in an intact form. Drizzt showed gamers that they could play a cool drow ranger armed with two scimitars who.... left civilization in search of adventure, battled monsters, collected loot, and sold it in town for a tidy profit.
Dragonlance suffers similar problems to DS - the novels typically present a core story, then resolve it before gamers can latch on to it. The best game fiction (in terms of core story) doesn't star the characters - it stars the setting.
Implications for Designers
When building story elements for an RPG, you need to keep your game's core story in mind. The best example I can think of is the development of the Red Wizards of Thay for the 3e version of the Forgotten Realms. In third edition, the red wizards gain their power by crafting magic items and selling them across the world. Not only does this fit in brilliantly with the core story (the PCs need a place to buy new items and sell the ones they recover), but it illustrates the Realms' ability to take elements of D&D and absorb them in a manner that the game's mechanics neatly fold into the game's story elements. Of course the red wizards are powerful - they make a fortune selling magic items. Of course the red wizards are everywhere on Faerun - they have a massive trade network. And of course the governments of Faerun tolerate the wizards, despite their tendency towards evil - who else can produce magic items on the same scale?
By filtering story elements through the core story, we can see which parts of a setting are likely to see use (and thus need detail, testing, etc), which ones are superfluous (and thus occupy time and resources best spent elsewhere), and so forth. Here's a mental exercise - try going through the Eberron core book armed with the core story I propose, and look at which setting elements support that story and which ones don't. Look at existing elements and think of subtle or major changes that could make them better suited to the core story. IMO, this process is the key to building a viable, popular, and sustainable game setting.